A lowercase "g" is a Grinnell landmark’s logo; it could easily stand for "gee whiz!"
Just three hours east of Omaha (and less than an hour east of Des Moines), this central Iowa college town of 9,200 is full of pleasant surprises.
It’s apparent from a cruise through the well-cared-for downtown that the city and chamber of commerce have worked with local merchants and entrepreneurs to put their best face forward. The business district has the feel of a 1950s movie set. One could envision Marty McFly finding his way back to the future on these streets.
And things that are old are new again. Really new! Situated a block from the business district is the old junior high school, built in 1921, renovated and converted in 1978 to a city building, and in the past four years reworked and reborn in September 2017 as Hotel Grinnell with a cleverly executed school-days theme.
The rehab was a collaboration between hotel developer Steve Holtze (who also owns Omaha’s Magnolia Hotel) and owner-operator manager Angela Harrington, who, working with Grinnell’s city manager, found grant money for the $7 million restoration in the already-designated historic district.
The result is a boutique hotel experience that’s a destination in itself and a boon to a community that already has a lot of offer an overnight visitor.
The hotel lives up to its claim of being “Upscale in style. Laid back in spirit.” The schoolhouse theme is ever-so-subtle, starting with a “Hall Pass” keycard holder, blackboard and red apple in every room.
There are 43 guest rooms, eight suites and one penthouse suite (with a view of Central Park). Each has narrow-plank hardwood floors and soaring ceilings and windows – just like classrooms and study halls back in the day. Two bunkrooms in the former locker room sleep 10 each. “Big families, teens and wedding parties love it,” Harrington says.
Harrington worked with an area metal fabricator to design and build the hotel’s signature black steel furniture, some with handsome laser-cut "g" logos. Light fixtures, art prints, upholstery and other accents were sourced through Restoration Hardware, Crate & Barrel, Room and Board and West Elm. Live succulents, organic soaps and white linens contribute to the eco-friendly aesthetic.
One thing not readily at hand in rooms: a house phone (they’re only available upon request). Guest relations are handled through text messaging and a virtual concierge app. “It’s fun and efficient,” Harrington says. Free Wi-Fi and Google Chromecast allow guests to stream programming to the in-room TV.
The blackboards seem to score high with guests. “They’ve become giant comment cards,” Harrington says. “Some people have left complex mathematical equations that I have no idea how to solve.”
A basket of after-school snacks contains some hotel swag available for purchase, including a men’s shaving kit, coffee mugs, T-shirt, ballcap and a “Not Now” tie for hanging outside your door when you don’t want to be disturbed.
There’s an exercise room with free weights and treadmills. And complimentary bikes – on help-yourself racks in a hallway. “The bikes are our most popular amenity for tooling around town,” Harrington says.
The on-site eatery and “drink lab,” The Periodic Table, offers craft beer, fair trade coffee and a select menu of specialty shared plates, flats and sliders. Complimentary breakfast for guests is served here, too. The space has a sports bar feel with a black-and-white checkerboard tile floor and lighted scoreboard. Guests can play Shuffleboard, Tic-Tac-Toe or Scrabble (on an oversized, wall-mounted board). Catch live music on the patio every Friday night, weather permitting, through October. In the winter, the live music will move inside.
The hotel has a ballroom for weddings and meetings (the old gym) and an auditorium the seats 376 for performances, conferences and other special events. This year, 22 weddings have been booked. “I’m getting brides from all over the state,” Harrington says.
“If you’re building a sexy hotel, a school can be odd,” Harrington says of the 65,000-square-foot-space. “We were lucky.” I’m really glad we did subtle nods to the school without being kitchy.
Hotel Grinnell may even spark a trend. “The goal is to do five of these in towns of 10,000 or more,” says Harrington, an entrepreneur with a marketing and operations background. “I just love old buildings. Bringing the character of the building alive is really fun and makes for an interesting interesting and compelling stay. It resonates with guests.
For leisure travelers, college parents and families looking for an economical mini vacation, Grinnell offers a progressive food scene, a cool wine bar, a lively fine arts and music scene, a scenic bike trail, two golf courses, an over-the-top waterpark, a speedway and the Iowa State Fair just an hour away. And that’s Harrington’s condensed list.
Grinnell’s downtown is flat and very walkable. For food and spirits, Peach Tree Brewing Co., Peppertree at the Depot Crossing, Prairie Canary, Pagliai’s Pizza and Lonnski’s Pub & Back Alley Deli are hot spots. For oven-fresh pastries (try the macaroons) and cheery conversation, head for Sunrise Bakery and grab a tulip table by the window. For vintage and contemporary home accessories, some locally made, there’s Loralei’s Gift Shoppe.
History buffs will want to see the town’s most significant historic building, Merchants National Bank. It’s one of eight Midwestern “jewel box” bank designs by Louis Sullivan, famed “father of modernism” and mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright. The building dates to 1914. It currently houses the Grinnell Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center.
Just one more fascinating facet of Grinnell, “Jewel of the Prairie.”